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LCRA OKs water plan that allows cuts to downstream farmers

Thursday, October 20, 2011 by Michael Kanin

A divided Lower Colorado River Authority board of directors voted Wednesday to move forward with the agency’s new Water Management Plan. It will be back for a final look in January before the board sends it to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) for approval.


The board, in voting, brushed aside a last minute effort on the part of downstream agricultural interests to include adaptive measures in the plan. Had those been adopted, such rules would permit more flexibility in water allotments during particularly dry and—in what would have been key for growers—wet years.


The new plan was developed just a year and a half after the adoption of the LCRA’s last water management document. It took the TCEQ seven years to approve the 2010 edition of the plan.


Six of 15 board members – John C. Dickerson, Kathleen Hartnett White, J. Scott Arbuckle, Steve K. Balas, Michael G. McHenry and Lori A. Burger—voted against the idea.


Dickerson, who hails from a family of rice farmers, summed up his case. “I think that the plan should contain adaptive measures…that can benefit all,” he said. “To send my message loud and clear, I’m going to vote against the plan for that reason and also for the reason that we do not have specific language on the implementation of downstream reservoirs.”


The 2011 plan makes several key changes to the way that the LCRA handles its water. According to a memo from LCRA staff, the adjustments address three major points: the projected increase of demand from the utility’s municipal or firm water customers, “intense” drought situations, and new science related to water flow in bay and estuary regions.


The City of Austin holds a firm water contract with the LCRA.


The bulk of the consternation appears to come from downstream agricultural interests, who worry that the new approach to water management could literally dry-up their rice farms. Bay City chamber of commerce president and CEO Mitch Thames again brought that concern to the board. “Every time we talk about higher levels and less water coming down, I want you to understand that that means less acreage planted…and I want you to equate that with going to a grocery store and getting a haircut, and buying things in town,” he said.


City of Austin Assistant City Attorney Ross Crowe urged the board to move the plan forward. He argued that the plan includes space for future revisions such as adaptive techniques, even if they aren’t included in the initial draft.


After the hearing, Crowe told In Fact Daily that “we were concerned that there was not a lot of time for any one to look at these new provisions.”


“Out of fairness, and what we think would be the best revisions to the plan, (we) were wanting the board to go ahead and lock-in the consensus items that have been agreed to by all of the stakeholders up and down the basin,” he continued.


Austin Water Utility director Greg Meszaros told In Fact Daily that the utility was “pleased with the outcome.” He called Wednesday’s action “productive…for firm water customers.”


Though the board’s resolution did not yet include adaptive rules, it left the door open for such measures to return to the water management stakeholders committee. Should the committee approve such measures in time for the January vote, the LCRA could still include them in the plan.


Meszaros wouldn’t speculate on Austin Water’s position on the adaptive rules. “The devil is in the details,” he said, adding that the utility’s immediate concern was with getting the LCRA board to approve the bulk of the Water Management Plan without re-opening it for a host of changes.

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